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Letter From Aviation History - November 2009

Originally published on Published Online: September 02, 2009 
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"If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we…" That stock expression, often used in frustration over some perceived ineptitude, reflects the high regard with which we view the Apollo moon landings. In most people's minds, they simply were history's greatest technological achievement. The sad fact is, four decades after Neil Armstrong first took "one small step," we lack the capacity to do it again. And if the space shuttle is retired next year as planned, the United States won't even be able to put an astronaut into orbit, much less on the moon, until the Apollo-style Orion spacecraft currently under development is ready to fly in 2015.

Many of us who grew up in the 1960s and '70s marveling at NASA's accomplishments and the continual march of progress in space expected that we'd have a lunar base and be well on our way to a manned Mars mission by now. What happened to our drive to push the boundaries of manned space exploration? Simple: We lost the vision and political will.

In his celebrated 1962 speech at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy provided the impetus for the lunar landings: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…." At the time America faced challenges no less daunting than those facing the nation today. Yet NASA took up the gauntlet, and visionary engineers delivered on President Kennedy's promise. It remains to be seen if another young president can muster the political will to add to JFK's space legacy.

For now the future belongs to visionaries like Burt Rutan, profiled by Peter Garrison on P. 24. Rutan has always played the upstart, thumbing his nose at the engineering establishment and flying in the face of convention. His X Prize–winning White Knight/SpaceShipOne design provided a new paradigm for spaceflight, one centered on the ability of private enterprises to make technological leaps far more cheaply and quickly than government-sponsored entities. Soon Rutan's White Knight Two, recently on display at EAA AirVenture, will carry SpaceShipTwo on test flights, inaugurating a new era of privately sponsored suborbital trips under the auspices of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company.

Charles Lindbergh once wrote, "I don't believe in taking foolish chances, but nothing can be accomplished without taking any chance at all." Burt Rutan understands that perhaps better than anyone else. Here's to his next risk-taking adventure.


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